Behind the Headlines: Changing the Faces of War
I vividly recall when the jury gathered two years ago, Joe Sacco’s nomination came about virtually instantly. All jury members agreed that Sacco produced a highly personal body of work. Powerful. Important. And to top that, splendidly crafted as well. The committee of comics experts shortly followed. And by thus awarding the VPRO Grand Prix, it underlined Sacco’s status as a world class pioneer of documentary comics.
When awarded the Grand Prix, Joe chose war as the theme of his Grand Prix exhibition. The changing faces of war, as he saw them in the works of painters and comics artists he admired or vividly recalled from his youth. But also the changing faces of war he had met in the people during his trips to Bosnia and Palestine – as you can see up here.
Two years ago, it was already clear that this exhibition would be sadly up to date. War has always haunted humanity. But only few people expected that we would see war changing face, yet again, so close to home, with Dutch and American soldiers fighting right now in Iraq.
We can only guess what is happening now in Iraq. The recent torture photographs of US soldiers suggest that we do not know half of what is going on. That the headlines only skim the surface. And this is why the images and stories gathered here around us are so important. This is why – in Joe Sacco’s tongue in cheek terms – being a war junkie matters.
Joe Sacco’s images bring us behind the headlines. Behind the flood of news images of presidents, generals, tv hosts and soldiers we see every day. Like George Orwell in his classic, gripping report on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, Joe Sacco focuses on the day to day realities of war. Where military glory is a joke. Where survival and humanity are all that matters. Where people chop wood in the winter streets because the normal heating system is down. Where ordinary civilians are ordered by the military to dig trenches for days on a row. Where war criminals are judged in highly polished, stylish courts – years after the fact.
With scenes like this Joe Sacco shows his great talents as an observer. He brings to life the stories of Bosnia, Palestine, the International Criminal Tribunal with impressive detail.
This way he defies the camera in the so-called media war. Sacco’s images are no regular part of our daily media fare. They show us familiar situations, but in an unfamiliar way.
Intimate and accessible, his images have a shock value that photographic images lack. Those camera images we take in routinely, day after day – no matter how gruesome they may be. And then we forget. Joe Sacco’s images show us war situations anew. Well-balanced, in minute detail, they tell us more than a familiar story. They make us see behind the headlines, behind the media images we all know so well. And they make us question: what do we know?
This is a final source of the power of Joe Sacco’s work. He portraits himself as an observer. As you can see: he invites his readers to ‘put themselves in his shoes’. His is a personal story. No absolute truths here. Only human documents.
These are the kind of documents that offer hope in this media saturated age. They offer the hope that an ever increasing number of people will indeed question the headlines, will indeed question the images.
In April 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell showed satellite photographs to the UN of what he claimed were Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Now, one year later, it is clear once again that we cannot believe everything we see with our own eyes. That, in the end, we can only believe what we can see in other people’s eyes.
Changing the Faces of War: Joe Sacco Grand Prix Exhibition Stripdagen Haarlem, June 5 – July 4, 2004
Tuinzaal Teylers Museum, Haarlem